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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February, 2005, 10:06 GMT
'Sorry' Sun tries to woo Scousers
The Sun's managing editor, Graham Dudman
Graham Dudman wants to be friends again.
Asking for forgiveness is not usually the Sun's style.

Britain's top-selling tabloid is more likely to be crowing about its successes than drawing attention to its mistakes.

But in an extraordinary turnabout, executives at the newspaper have spent the past six months on their knees, trying to win forgiveness for what they describe as the biggest mistake in the paper's history.

On 19 April 1989, the Sun published a front page article claiming to have the real story about what happened during the Hillsborough stadium disaster, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death during an FA cup semi-final.

Called The Truth, the article quoted unnamed police to say "some fans" had urinated on the dead, pick pocketed bodies and beat up police officers giving the kiss of life.

But the article was not the truth.

Boycott

In Liverpool, grief over the tragedy turned to hatred. A boycott of the Sun was launched on Merseyside and sales of the paper plummeted.

It's a boycott that has now lasted more than 15 years and cost the paper tens of millions of pounds in lost sales.

James didn't even have a drink that day or been near a pub. But that's what we heard... because mud sticks
Margaret Aspinall
Many newsagents in the city still refuse to stock it.

"If countries can go to war and be friends in 15 years, then can't the Sun and the people of Merseyside do that as well?" asks Sun managing editor Graham Dudman.

Last summer, Mr Dudman met in secret with relatives from four Hillsborough families in a bid to win their forgiveness.

The meeting was part of a series of delicate negotiations between the paper and the Hillsborough Family Support Group that was followed by a BBC documentary crew.

Mr Dudman's secret meeting came after the Sun's deal to tell Liverpudlian Wayne Rooney's life story saw it attacked once again in the city.

'Blackest of days'

Rooney was slammed for having betrayed his home town by speaking to "the scum" - as the paper is known to many Scousers.

"He [Rooney] was being vilified locally in the papers, on the web and on the radio stations and having abuse hurled at him all for talking to the Sun.

"And we thought, 'Well, this is getting ridiculous now, so we'll apologise'," says Mr Dudman.

If countries can go to war and be friends in 15 years, then can't the Sun and the people of Merseyside do that as well?
Graham Dudman
For the first time since publishing its article, the Sun printed a full page apology describing it as the most terrible mistake in its history.

In an editorial last July, it added "Our carelessness and thoughtlessness following that blackest of days made the grief of their families and friends even harder to bear."

But after 15 years, it was time for the city to "move on".

On Merseyside, the apology failed to make any headway.

'Mud sticks'

It was widely attacked as insincere and seen simply as a ploy to sell more papers.

Moreover, many of the Hillsborough families feel they have never got justice for the death of their loved ones and blame the Sun for having turned public opinion against them.

"People believe what they read. When we had the trial all we heard was drink, drink, drink," says Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died at Hillsborough.

"James didn't even have a drink that day or been near a pub. But that's what we heard.... because mud sticks. That article made me have to defend my son."

Wayne Rooney
Liverpudlian Wayne Rooney was vilified for talking to the Sun

Undeterred, Mr Dudman travelled to Liverpool to try to put his case in person to the Hillsborough Family Support Group.

Margaret Aspinall and members of three other Hillsborough families agreed to meet with him informally.

His appeal for forgiveness included an offer to campaign for justice on their behalf - but only if the group would accept the apology.

After much persuasion, the four family members agreed to put his appeal to the group as a whole.

Six weeks later, Mr Dudman travelled again to Liverpool to wait in a nearby hotel room while the support group met at Anfield. But they voted to refuse him an audience.

The rejection of its apology is a major setback for the Sun's attempts to rehabilitate itself in Liverpudlian eyes and to win back lost sales on Merseyside.

And it's clear that it has a considerable way to go to convince many Merseysiders of its sincerity.

"Do you forgive Hitler for what he's done?" asks Margaret Aspinall.

"Does anybody forgive Pol Pot for what they done? We are not God. I cannot forgive people like that. And that Sun newspaper, may God forgive them - not me."




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